PAY a visit to landscape specialists Sokea Garden in Sen Sok district, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve entered a different world.
The 2,000-square-metre parcel of land is a veritable tropical paradise, bursting with trees, bushes, flowers and ferns – a cool green oasis of calm and tranquility.
On a path from the road to a small office building deep inside the compound, Lao Mekeang, the 39-year-old CEO and founder of Sokea Garden, is carefully examining a rocky fish pond following a sudden thunderstorm, concerned the downpour may have caused damage. He is accompanied by his wife, Hok Sokea, who the company is named after.
“Water gives life, but too much water can also ruin the plants,” says Namkeang. “And these plants are very important because they are the heart of my business.”
As a teenager growing up in Koh Sotin district of Kampong Cham province, Namkeang wanted to be an artist – specifically a sculptor – and attended training courses organised by the French Institute of Cambodia.
A sculpture made of bamboo and coconut shells at an exhibition called Ponleu, earned him a scholarship to art school in France, but Namkeang chose instead to follow in his father’s footsteps and studied business administration at Norton University.
When the family business fell on hard times 1998, Namkeang was forced to drop out, but won a scholarship to study interior design at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
“I never planned on studying it, and I was so nervous when I took my first step into the class,” Namkeang says. “However, after a while I found that my artistic talent and skill helped me a lot. The close relationship between art, which I love, and design meant I really enjoyed studying.
To help the family finances, a sophomore started doing freelance work – mostly designing stages for concerts.
But just a few months after graduating in 2000, Namkeang received a huge break when he was commissioned to design the Kirirom Hillside Resort.
It was a quirky endeavour.
Although he designed the houses and bungalows, his favourite part of the project was landscaping the ground, planting thousands of exotic plants and installing many sculptures – including a 17-metre statue of a Brachiosaurus.
“Before, I had only worked on indoor designs and had never realized that landscapes, especially the gardens, could be such a feature. Hardscaping [installations], meanwhile, involved creating artwork, which I love very much.”
Eight years later, shortly after his marriage, Namkeang changed tack and focused entirely on landscape design.
The newlyweds brought together a group of young Cambodian designers and in 2013 registered as a limited liability company.
“There were so many reasons I turned our small group into a company, but the main one was the increasing enthusiasm among business owners and investors for landscapes,” Namkeang says.
“Meanwhile working indoors stressed me. As an outdoor person I needed to turn back to working with nature – which at the same time allows me to use my artistic skills and talents.”
Sokea Garden provides a number of landscaping services including design and construction, civil work, water features, and “hardscaping”, as well as maintenance of indoor and outdopor gardens.
In five years the company has grown at great pace, accepting projects from a number of major investors and companies.
Some examples are the garden at Cambodia Beverage Company’s plant – which incorporates a pond in the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle – as well as the first and second branches of Aeon Mall and the side road garden at Phnom Penh City Center.
His toughest project to date was designing the garden at Veal Preah Men, the funerary complex for the late King Norodom Sihanouk, which he had to complete in a month.
“I couldn’t believe we’d been chosen for such a prestigious project,” Namkeang said, “but we now have a large portfolio of original and classical designs for many satisfied customers, big and small.”
According to Namkeang, the key to his company’s success is concentrating on creating landscapes that fit with the property’s identity.
“What I mean by identity is what we want the structure to be,” he says. “It depends on whether the property is place where people work or relax, whether it is modern or classical, Western or Asian – but one thing is clear: All these elements must blend with nature.
Another important factor is to precisely understand the client’s desires and budget.
“One thing we always strive for is to make dream of the client come true without compromising the quality of our work,” he says.
“We always keep our eye on marginal differences in cost, for example, between buying artificial grass or real stuff.”
Namkeang starts on his designs by painting the landscape on canvas and draws inspiration from travel – both in Cambodia and abroad.
Like many local companies today, Sokea Garden is facing intense competition from the foreign companies, especially in term of design quality and pricing.
“Our mission is to make customers think about us first when they are thinking about beautifying their structures,” he says.
“But my ultimate dream is to have a resort that I design myself, which I can enjoy after my retirement when my children and younger employees can take over my business.”